Audiobook Review: ‘Catherine the Great’ by Robert K. Massie

by Kim on June 26, 2012 · 23 comments

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Title: Catherine the Great: A Portrait of a Woman
Author: Robert K. Massie
Narrator: Mark Deakins
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2011
Acquired: Purchased from Audible
Rating: ★★★★☆

One Sentence Summary: Born an obscure German princess, Catherine the Great became one of Russia’s greatest monarchs through sheer determination (and the love of those close to her).

One Sentence Review: Massie’s epic biography succeeds by showing the personal side of history, infusing even the most dry parts of history with emotion and importance.

Book Review: Catherine the Great, a woman now recognized as the most celebrated and longest-ruling female monarch of Russia, was born an obscure German princess. After traveling to Russia at 14 to marry a young heir to the throne, Catherine rose to power out of her own determination and support from those who grew to love her strong personality, intelligence, and benevolence.

Despite my love of nonfiction, I don’t read many biographies. I’ve always found them a little dense, and they’re often difficult to organize — when biographers simply tell a life story chronologically, it’s hard to pull out themes and threads that bring a historical figure to light. Despite its length (656 pages or almost 24 hours on audio), Robert K. Massie’s Catherine the Great: A Portrait of a Woman, never seems to have those problems.

I think the reason Massie succeeds with this biography is evident in the book’s subtitle — “a portrait of a woman.” Massie keeps the biography focused on the people that had the most impact on Catherine and organizes each section around these relationships. While it can get a little confusing to remember which Russian lover is which, or which minor ruler matters at a given moment, on the whole the book is kept moving through the way Massie makes each historical figure into a real person.

Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Catherine before reading this biography, so I’m not in a position to comment either on accuracy or how it fits into the canon of other books about Catherine. However, I felt that while it was clear Massie admires Catherine, he also was not afraid to show some of her more unflattering qualities or decisions, or places where her ambition did not meet up with reality.

Audio Review: The narrator for Catherine the Great was Mark Deakins, who is quickly growing to be one of my favorite audiobook narrators. Deakins was also the narrator for two other audiobooks I’ve listed too — The Lost City of Z and The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, both written by David Grann.

In all three books, Deakins showcases his ability to subtly change his accent or inflections for different characters. Catherine the Great was, I think, the first time I’ve heard him narrate dialogue for women extensively, and I thought he handled it really well. I have no criticisms about the audio production of the book (but keep in mind that it’s really, really long — nearly 24 hours in total).

Other Reviews: Beth Fish Reads | Rhapsody in Books | S. Krishna’s Books |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm June 26, 2012 at 9:11 am

Sounds kinda like the biography of Elizabeth II I recently listened to. It was awesome, but 21+ hours long!

I may have to check this one out; I haven’t read much about Catherine either. Honestly, I didn’t even know she was German, although if I’d ever thought about it I would’ve known she couldn’t have been Russian.

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Kim June 26, 2012 at 6:53 pm

It’s amazing how long some biographies can get. I love how definitive they feel, but it can also be a little overwhelming.

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Jen - Devourer of Books June 26, 2012 at 11:26 am

I really liked Deakins narrating THE DEVIL AND SHERLOCK HOLMES. I think I would have been intimidated to try this in audio, but I’m hearing really good things about it

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Kim June 26, 2012 at 6:53 pm

The length was a little intimidating, and I wondered if it would hold together over such a long listening period. I think Massie’s organization — by subject rather than strictly chronological — really helped make it work in audio.

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Julie Merilatt June 26, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Massie is the king of Russian biographies. After he got me hooked on all things Romanovs with Nicholas and Alexandra and the follow up, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter, I tackled the Pulitzer Prize winning Peter the Great, so you’ll have to put that on your lists, too.

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Kim June 26, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Yes, he is! After you mentioned it, I went and found The Romanovs at my library. I’m really curious to see what he does with a smaller story.

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Susan June 26, 2012 at 4:13 pm

wow unabridged? I’m impressed. You could drive to the opposite coast listening to it. How’d you find the time? I think the biography sounds interesting … I’d like to know more about Catherine …

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Kim June 26, 2012 at 6:56 pm

It took me more than a month to listen to the whole thing. I found time on a few long car trips, then fit in shorter segments while I was exercising and doing chores. Over time, I guess it really adds up.

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sawcat June 26, 2012 at 4:47 pm

I am really starting to love history audiobooks. I love history, but there is so much information that even if it is well written, the books take much longer to read than fiction. But with the audiobooks, they go much quicker. I’ve been eyeing this one at the library, so I think I’ll have to put a hold on it.

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Kim June 26, 2012 at 6:57 pm

I think this is nice because since I couldn’t see the length of the book, it didn’t seem so big. Plus, I only do audio books when I can’t really be doing any reading, so that helped it not cut into other books too. I hope you enjoy the book!

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bermudaonion (Kathy) June 26, 2012 at 6:02 pm

I have a feeling I’d do better with this one in print.

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Kim June 26, 2012 at 6:57 pm

I think it just depends on your style (and how much time you can spend listening). I don’t think this is one I would have read on my own, so audio was a good pick.

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softdrink June 26, 2012 at 7:59 pm

I’ve read other biographies of Catherine and find her fascinating, so it’s probably just a matter of time before I cave and read this one, too.

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Care June 27, 2012 at 7:45 am

I love bios but it has been awhile since I’ve indulged. I would be fascinated with this, I’m sure, and appreciate the note/rec for the narrator.

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Kailana June 27, 2012 at 6:06 pm

I have this kicking around in e-book format. I need to get around to it because I have heard good things!

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Lisa July 4, 2012 at 9:51 am

I bought this but knew I wasn’t going to get to it any time soon so loaned it to my mom. She loved it so much, she read it in less than a week. Since the two of you liked it so much, I’m just going to have to make time for it this summer!

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Kim July 21, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Wow, that’s fast! But it’s a great book, I hope you get to read it.

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Nikki Steele July 5, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Such a good recommendation! This is one of the books at the store that I was always tempted to buy (what a great portrait they chose for the cover) but was always intimidated by size. An audiobook seems a lot more manageable and may help with hearing the names to being able to sort them out (crazy Russian nicknames and second names and third names it seems).

I recently read Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra book and, while I enjoyed it, I found the same problems that you seem to with biographies–too overwhelming and timeline a bit scattered. Good to know this one has a clear focus.

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Kim July 21, 2012 at 1:00 pm

I struggle with names, especially foreign ones, but I didn’t have too much of a problem in this book. Massie does a good job reintroducing people with details, so it’s less important to always know the names and focus on the relationships, but I will admit that sometimes I got confused over who was who.

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FABR Steph July 6, 2012 at 12:09 pm

I have had this on my TBR for a long while. Thank you for the reminder to pick it up and for your wonderful review. It sounds terrific.

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John T. Alexander November 23, 2013 at 10:21 am

Massie’s latest book prove he’s lost his marbles at 83! Tne man can’t even read Russian! So much for the great
rtussia expert! He’s a fraud and his book a travest! For chater and verse, see my critical evaluation in
slavic
review (Spring 2013), pp. 162-63. It is sickening to see the gullible reviews by amaateurs who know no
russian or
russian history. Massie should be ignored, but he keeps “lecturing” on the subject. Puleese!~!

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